The Embassy of Ireland celebrated 25 years of the he Aisling Return to Ireland Project last week with a reception for the many volunteers and patrons who have supported it in that time.
The charity reaches out to Irish people who are vulnerable, isolated and alone and provides supported holidays in Ireland for long-term emigrants and helps them reconnect with their families and friends.
It also helps long-term emigrants resettle in Ireland.
It was started by staff and volunteers and Arlington House, which at one time was the biggest homeless hostel in Europe home to more Irish men than any other building outside Ireland – about 1,200 at any one time.
Today there are just 95 tenants there, in brighter and more spacious accommodation, as Aisling has expanded its activities to include organisations and centres across London, to ensure that they make contact with as many Irish people as possible in need of their services
The charity organises five Return-to-Ireland trips each year, 25 returning emigrants in summer supported by half a dozen staff and volunteers. A different county is chosen every summer.
Every Christmas the charity brings 16 returnees to Mulranny in Mayo, home to the Safe-Home programme, which matches clients to sheltered accommodation all over Ireland. It also offers ‘dry’ day trips to Ireland for those of its clients who are recovering alcoholics in partnership with the Kairos Community Trust (www.kairoscommunity.org.uk).
Every St. Patrick’s Day it brings 16 clients, supported by four staff, to Blessington in Co. Wicklow to stay at Avon Ri holiday village.
Comedian and actor Ardal O’Hanlon, who has been a supporter and patron of the Aisling Project for 20 years, said the people it helps could be any one of us, they were not ‘other’ or different.
He could confirm this from personal experience, he said.
“About ten years ago on St Patrick’s Day I had some of the people back to my house when I heard my wife, Melanie, let out a scream in the kitchen.
“I went in there and she had been speaking to a quiet, well-dressed, man, ‘Harry’, whom she had asked where he was from. He had replied ‘Mountmellick’ in Laois. She said she had an aunt there and said her name, and he said, ‘That’s my sister’. Hence the scream.
“It turned out he was Melanie’s missing uncle for whom they had made appeals on the radio to find. He had left Ireland as a young man, joined the Army and was sent to Yemen where he saw his best friend blown to bits in front of him and never fully recovered, losing touch and drifting away. And now he is reunited.”